UNMASKING : Selections from the Bali Journals
The mask maker in Mas tells us he sometimes wakes up with a face in his mind and he knows that's what he wants to carve and that other times the wood tells him as he begins to carve what shape it wants to be. How you must use a mask, dance with it for a long time before you really understand what the mask is, before you truly enter its essence. The mask houses the spirit. Winslow says each day in Bali another mask is peeled away, revealing another under it, and he senses he might actually be getting to the mask that is his real core. Masks that help us to be who we are asked to be. We spend our days in masks we haven't yet figured the dance for. To be in Bali is to unmask ourselves. I spend my days in visceral response to walking over deep ravines, intense vertigo in my gut, and am able only to look at this abyss as death. I wonder if there's a sense of home in death because of all who have left me to reside in that place that is shadow, a sort of darkness without clarity or definition? When I walk over these deep ravines I am walking the abyss of death cautiously, while without noticing the dark at all an old Balinese woman carries a load of cut greens in a huge basket on her head, looking directly in front of herself.
This is a culture with its eyes on blood. Most immediately as a woman visiting Bali, the first thing you notice as you visit temples is the admonition that women must not enter temple grounds when menstruating. When we visit the Tenganan Festival, a celebration of the pre-Hindu god Indra who lords over storms, fertility, war, the nymphs, musicians, dancers and rainmakers, we see the unmarried women of the village riding wooden ferris wheels, going round and round, joining heaven and earth as fertility symbols. They represent the descent of Indra to purify the land, bring water, replenish and assure the earth's fertility. Indra, as water deity, must receive special offerings during the dry season to assure that the land receives rain. It is here that we learn of the difference in the eyes of the Balinese between the controlled letting of blood and unasked-for bloodletting. The first is represented at Tenganan by the young men of the village who engage in thorn- leafed battles in which they attempt to draw blood from the backs of their opponents. The men are dressed in geringsing, or double ikat, sacred cloths as they go at each other with the thorny padangus leaves. There's a great deal of laughter during this ritual, which seems such a serious undertaking. (I am reminded of my own practice of Aikido, where one feels intense pleasure in the midst of intense play, but play that appears to be a fight of some sorts to outsiders.) This controlled bloodletting is a giving up of one's life substance to balance what the gods have given you. There's an intense and unparalleled sense of community and spirit during this ritual.
Menstruation, wounds, childbirth are all considered unasked-for bloodletting. Which is somehow less valued. I find myself thinking of what a powerful time menstruation is for a woman, how one must go inward and how it suddenly becomes possible to see through to what is usually masked in our lives, how during this time one does battle with oneself, but not on a stage, and sometimes without witnesses. It can be a time of clarity and vision. And in Bali I am suddenly stumped because I had felt this culture to be one that embraces the body in all its manifestations.
Now I see that this culture embraces women as long as they are bearing children. To make menstruation taboo, to place value on bloodletting that simply comes from men strutting their stuff and attacking each other with thorny leaves devalues what is quite natural in women.
I hear Gretchen's screams as she gave birth to her son before I left on this
journey. I see women approaching the temple door, then turning away.
There's something about Bali and its customs that goes right to the "hara", the center of my body. I can feel myself being altered. One day we're in the small village of Munduk, utterly welcomed into a private ceremony by a family we barely know. Their son is three month's old and it is during the tiga bulan ceremony that his feet touch the earth for the first time. Until now he has been too close to the gods and thus protected from the baseness of the ground.
Another day we stand in the crowd at a cremation ceremony in Penestanan
watching men dressed in black carry the black bull and the body on a platform
down village streets. They hold onto the platform, lifting it and suddenly
running with it, chaotically, down the street toward us, the crowd leaping off
to the side of the road. As the men run by they also spin the beast around on
its big wooden platform, nearly knocking down tourists and others, and I find
myself exhilarated by this, as if death itself were spinning in front of my
eyes, as if I can take death on through the bull-like beast, through the men's
whirling and laughter. I cry. I can't help the tears that rise up in me,
sudden and brief, a violent and fearful edge, like death, like fast
lovemaking. The next day, Ketut informs me that the weather after a cremation
is often cloudy like today, sometimes for a week after the ceremony.
Selamat datang, Pujur says, Welcome. The earth, too, welcomes us here, the lotus flower wide open in the pond outside the bungalow. The shrines to Dewi Sri, the rice goddess, look on as women of the village harvest the rice right outside our front porch. Everyone here moves with unsurpassed grace through the chores of daily life, as if one with them, in a stunning display of balance. A man and a woman lift a bag of rice to her head; she walks away down paths in the rice fields, carrying the whole load. The sun breaks through the clouds for the first time all day, just as it's setting.
Issue #3, September, 1998 :
Santa Fe Poetry Broadside.